Jam Cake Recipe – A Civil War Era Dessert Favorite

Jam cake is a classic American cake that I had never heard of until a few weeks ago. All of a sudden I heard jam cake referenced three times in one week and became intrigued enough to search out both its history and a recipe… my family is so glad that I did.

Jam cake is made similar to spice cake, but has blackberry jam infused throughout, and features either a caramel icing or a buttermilk cream icing. This Kentucky and Tennessee cake dates back at least as far as the end of the Civil War.

blackberry jam cake
blackberry jam cake

As the story goes, soldier Joe Kellett crawled away from the battlefield after becoming badly wounded. He hid in a bush to avoid being killed since he could no longer defend himself. Kellett ultimately crawled his way along the edge of the woods until he reached a nearby farm.

The family took Joe Kellett in and tended to his wounds. While convalescing from his battlefield wounds the young soldier fell in love with the farmer’s daughter, Amanda. He promised to return and claim Amanda’s hand in marriage once the Civil War ended.

Joe and Amanda Kellett married and raised a family of seven children while running a boarding house. Amanda, who was affectionately referred to as “Granny Kellett” by most everyone during her latter years, served a delicious jam cake to her guests at meal times.

Word of the delicious country favorite spread far and wide over the years, helping to forever solidify this sweet and yummy cake a spot on the Sunday supper table across the South. Many folks in Kentucky and Tennessee think Christmas just simply would not be Christmas without the tantalizing smell of a jam cake wafting out of the oven.

Once I decided I was going to make a jam cake, I started searching online for recipes. The lovely stories submitted on recipe websites about the cherished family recipe being passed down through generations, were heartwarming.

Even though there are numerous jam cake recipe postings online, there really are not many different variations of this classic cake. Some folks prefer using pecans to walnuts, but that seems to have been prompted by what their great great grandmothers could locally source when making the cake in centuries past. Raisins are sometimes a part of the recipe, but again, the use of the ingredient varies by region.

After printing off what seemed to be a solid representation of an original Civil War era jam cake, I decided to check with my mother before actually heading to the grocery store. After she retired, she began compiling her own cookbook that had all of our family favorites, passed down recipes, and ones shared by friends and coworkers over the course of her life.

I was not surprised to learn she had a jam cake recipe from her old friend Barb, who move a little ways South after falling in love with a Kentucky boy named Billie Ray.

I had never made a cake from scratch before, but was able to pull off a perfect jam cake. Alright, the taste was perfect but I had some trouble with flipping around the cake pieces from the pan to the cooling racks. But, no one who tasted the cake seemed to mind the slightly uneven or missing parts of the otherwise perfect cake.

jam cake first attempt

While the cake turned out perfect, the from scratch icing noted in Barb Wilkinson’s recipe failed miserably. Purely human error on my part, I am sure.

I am including both Barb’s jam cake icing recipe and the icing recipe I ended up using (after scrubbing out the scorched buttermilk from my pot) from an online jam cake recipe.

This is how the icing recipe looked at first, before it quickly went downhill. I believe my candy thermometer was broken. It would not go above 200 degrees, so I kept the icing on the heat and stirring constantly waiting for it to reach the needed 238 degrees…which it never did.

Using a working candy thermometer and having enough patience to bring the mixture to a boil on medium heat will make all the difference when making jam cake (or any cake) icing.

blackberry jam cake ingredients

Blackberry Jam Cake Recipe


  • 1 cup blackberry jam
  • 1 cup pecans or walnuts finely chopped
  • 3 eggs large
  • 2 sticks butter at room temperature, unsalted is recommended
  • 1 – 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 – 3/4 cups flour
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 ½ teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup cooking oil
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup raisins (optional flavoring)
  • 1 teaspoon allspice (optional flavoring)
  • 1 teaspoon ginger (optional flavoring)

Caramel Frosting Ingredients

  • 1 stick butter unsalted recommended
  • cups brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • cup heavy cream
  • 1 pinch salt
  • cups powdered sugar sifted

Buttermilk Icing Ingredients

  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda


Caramel Frosting Instructions

  • Combine all ingredients except the powdered sugar into a medium pot and cook on medium heat until the mixture comes to a boil.
  • Remove the pot from the stove and whisk in the powdered sugar until it is smooth and spreadable.
    caramel frosting

Buttermilk Icing Instructions

  • Combine all ingredients in a bowl and stir constantly until the temperature reaches 238 degrees. Combine thoroughly until the icing is able to be spread.
  • Fold in the chopped nuts or use them as a decorative garnish.

Cake Directions

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease two 9-inch cake pans.
  • Optional – Roast the nuts slightly on a baking sheet in the oven while it preheats for up to five minutes. Remove the nuts and allow the nuts to cool. 
  • Put the sugar and butter into a bowl and mix by hand or with an electric mixer on high speed until creamy.
  • Stir in the blackberry jam.
  • Add in the eggs. Beat them one at a time into the mixture until they are thoroughly combined before adding in the next egg.
  • Set aside 1 tablespoon of flour.
  • Sift the rest of the flour into the mixing bowl.
  • Stir in all the dry spices you are using, and the salt.
  • In another mixing bowl, combine the buttermilk and the baking soda. Stir until they baking soda is dissolved.
  • Add in a third of the flour, spice, and salt mixture and combine.
  • Pour in half of the buttermilk mixture and combine again.
  • Add in another third of the flour mixture and the remaining buttermilk mixture and combine once again.
  • Add in the last of the flour mixture and combine completely with the other ingredients in the bowl.
    mixing all the ingredients
  • Mix together the roasted nuts, the 1 tablespoon of flour, and raisins – if your are using them. Make sure the nuts and raisins are completely coated and fold them into the icing. Split the icing in half so it can be placed on the middle and top of the cake.
  • Pour the batter into the greased cake pans and place in the oven for 40 minutes.
    cake in baking racks
  • Remove the cakes from the oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes before flipping them over onto baking racks.
  • Let the cakes rest on the cooling racks for at least 20 minutes before frosting them with icing.
    cakes on cooling racks

Jam Cake Assembly Instructions

  • Put one of the cake layers on a serving dish.
  • With a mixing spoon or spatula, place about one third of the icing mixture on top of the bottom cake layer.
  • Place the second cake layer directly on top of the first.
  • Place another third of the icing on the top cake layer.
  • Use the remaining third of the icing mixture to trickle down around the sides o the cake all the way around.
  • Let the icing harden on the cake for approximately 20 minutes before serving.

Do you have a jam cake recipe variation or a family story about this Civil War era dessert favorite to share? Please post it in the comments section below so the rest of the New Life On A Homestead community can enjoy it, as well.

Oh, and feel free to pin this on Pinterest board to try it out later!

blackberry jam cake recipe pinterest

11 thoughts on “Jam Cake Recipe – A Civil War Era Dessert Favorite”

  1. My mom made old-school caramel frosting — no confectioners sugar, so it isn’t cloyingly sweet. Just brown sugar, butter, milk, and salt cooked to soft-ball stage, then added vanilla. After letting it sit for 20 minutes, you start beating…..and beating…..and beating. I confess I use a hand mixer, but generations of women in my family did not. When the consistency is just right, which I’ve learned only after years of practice, it’s ready to spread on the cake. Lots of things have to go just right — a cold day with low humidity is a must — and beating exactly the right amount of time. Not long enough and it will roll off the cake like syrup, too long and it will set up like concrete before the first layer is frosted. But when everything goes right……heavenly!

  2. On the buttermilk frosting there isn’t buttermilk listed as an ingredient, only butter. Is this correct, or did you mean a cup of buttermilk?

    • In my opinion ,yes, it should say buttermilk and I know this is delicious on a spice cake as a sauce Ive never cooked it long enough to become spreadable like a icing. Im confused as to where you use the buttermilk icing recipe as the filling or you choose which icing you rather have ??

      • The directions are a bit confusing beginning with step 7. Is that a new mixing bowl for dry ingredients and a 3rd mixing bowl for buttermilk and soda? Which bowl were we adding to at the end? I never saw where the oil or vanilla was added. Was the baking powder supposed to go in dry ingredients? I apologize if I sound rude, but I just didn’t think the recipe was very clear. I just tried to figure something out. I think it will be good.

    • Susan,
      It really is delicious – especially with freshly picked blackberries! And thank you, I love writing for NLOAH but had been focused on one of Dan’s other sites and ebooks for a while, glad to be posting here again too! Just finished a how to make a Waldorf doll article for NLOAH, so be on the look out for it if love doing crafts as much as baking!


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